Transformative Learning Theory for E-Learning

| | Introduction | Transformative Learning Theory: Background | Transformative Learning Process | Mezirow's initial TL process included ten learning-process phases: | An Eleventh Phase | Mezirow's forms of reflection, relate to plans of action, transformations, and depths of change: | Another Phase | Transformative Theory Today | Examples of Disorienting Dilemmas | Transformative Learning Scenario | Beginning the Process | | Transformative Learning in Practice | Technology and Transformative Learning | Conceptualizing Reflection | Criticisms of Transformative Learning Theory | Moving Forward | References


This article intends to discover the perspectives and approaches of Transformative Learning Theory (TLT) that are best suited for postsecondary adult e-learners. A substantial body of seminal and current research and educational literature proclaim that adult learning is augmented significantly, when adult learners are provided opportunities to critically and pensively reflect on, and examine one's personal assumptions, beliefs, perceptions, and values (Mezirow, 2000). First, these emancipatory occasions, permit the learner to tap into transformative learning processes, which alter the learner's frames of reference and meaning structures. Second, the learner views him- or herself in the new light of transformed contexts, and is; therefore, able to modify fruitless views of others and the world, through the newly acquired frames of reference. This article contends that ample evidence exists, in relation to adult e-learners, as dynamic students and world citizens, when he or she experiences the life-changing aspects of Transformative Learning (TL).

Transformative Learning Theory: Background

Today, Jack Mezirow (1927) is a retired adult education professor, theorist, sociologist, conference speaker, and writer. In 1978, Mezirow was credited with the formulation of the Transformative Learning Theory (TLT), which, he admits is largely influenced by the theoretical works of Paulo Freire (1921-1997, Critical Pedagogy) and Jurgen Habermas (1929, Communicative Rationality and the Public Sphere) (Mezirow, 2012). At the heart of Mezirow's (1978) TLT, rests the assumption that, "...the relationship of transformative learning to autonomous, responsible thinking..." is the "...central goal of adult education..." (Mezirow, 1997, p. 5). Therefore, in a nutshell, TL is a process of implementing change in one's frame of reference, in order to influence a perspective transformative learning experience occurrence (Mezirow, 2009).

Over time, adults collect an amalgamation of experiences and assumptions, which are structured cognitively and emotionally by his or her frame of references, which stem from personal concepts, values, beliefs, feelings, cultures, and conditioned responses, in relation to associations with others in his or her sphere of society. At times, the frame of references derives meaning from associations with those of authority or a position of control, with the power to command a learned response, such as school, community, and local authorities (Mezirow, 2012). The frame of references contour feelings and behaviors of adults, and commonly presses him or her into a restraining path of action. This means that autonomy and thinking critically and reflectively is relentlessly limited, which configures the meaning structures of adults (Mezirow, 1997, 1994).

"A frame of references includes two elements: habits of mind and a point of view. Habits of mind are always affected and shaped by assumptions, which build on cultural, social, educational and political codes. While, a specific point of view is originated from habits of mind (Xu, 2010, para 4).

Therefore, the TL learning process frees adults to take control of their lives, think critically and reflectively through disorienting events, and utilize autonomy to generate new, healthier experiences, in the context of learning. This alteration in an adult-learner's frame of reference is referred to as, a perspective transformation, which provokes a deeper understanding of one's self, one's ability to learn, and the respective learning context (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009). The perspective transformation also provides the adult with new frame of references that promote autonomy, freedom to act, and new roles in life (Kitchenham, 2008). In other words, as the learner reflectively and critically examines and recognizes his or her old point of view, and decides to act (behavioral) and think (cognitive) from a reframed point of view, the value of new roles in life are formulated and become the learner's transformative perspective (Kitchenham, 2008; Cranton, 2006; Mezirow, 2000).

"Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world; changing these structures of habitual expectation to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective; and, finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings" (Imel, 1998, p. 2).

Transformative Learning Process

Awareness of one's current point of view and habits of mind is the beginning of the TL process, which commences with a disorienting dilemma. The learner recognizes that the disorienting dilemma is conceptualized in the frame of references, surrounding old habits of mind and an old point of view that are not viable sense-making experiences in which the dilemma at hand, may be resolved and a new frame of references may be experienced.

Mezirow's initial TL process included ten learning-process phases:

Phase 1 A disorienting dilemma
Phase 2 A self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame
Phase 3 A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions
Phase 4 Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change
Phase 5 Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
Phase 6 Planning of a course of action
Phase 7 Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
Phase 8 Provisional trying of new roles
Phase 9 Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
Phase 10 A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective (Kitchenham, 2008, p. 105).

An Eleventh Phase

In 1998, Mezirow, once again added a significant phases to the transformative theory, which was influenced by the work of Harbermas', Critical Communication Theory. Mezirow referred to these dimensions as, Reflective (or Rational) Discourse (Cranton, 2013a) and Critical Reflection on Assumptions (CRA), (Mezirow, 1998). The idea of reflective discourse is for the adult learner to discuss personal meaning structures with others and retrieve his or her meaning perspectives and meaning schemes. Then, reflectively and critically analyze the frame of references of others, and determine for oneself, autonomously, critically, and reflectively what the plan of action will be, and how the goals of the plan will be obtained. In this way, the learner reconstitutes his or her frame of references and perspective transformation transpires (Cranton, 2013a). Mezirow (1998) proposes that there are two different types of CRA.

First, is Self-Critical Refection of Assumptions (SCRA), in which the learner reflects on "...the premise upon which the learner has defined a problem" (Mezirow, 1998, p. 186). For instance, a female has assumptions surrounding her place in society, and believes she is limited to performing household duties, when in fact, she desires to attend college and obtain a degree in psychology. Consequently, the frames of references that shape this assumption, concerning her place in society, restrain her desired goals. This type of CRA has the empowerment to provide premises for important personal and social transformations for an individual's lifespan. Second, is CRA, regarding a larger scope of assumptions related (but not limited) to, "...logical, spiritual" (p. 187). This type of CRA, can effect dramatic transformation in existing frames of references, leading to autonomous decision- and meaning-making, to augment one's personal life. However, CRA is not restricted to one's individual frame of references, but is also valuable, when applied to the assumptions of others encountered in any learning setting, from social to academic and professional (Mezirow, 1998).

Mezirow's forms of reflection, relate to plans of action, transformations, and depths of change:


Mezirow's Reflective Transformations. (Kitchenham, 2008, p. 115).

Another Phase

Following, over sixty TL studies (Cranton, 2013a & 2006); Mezirow added another dimensional phase to his existing theory, in relation to meaning structures. He identified two dimensions that correlate with the learner's frame of references: Meaning perspectives and meaning schemes. Meaning perspectives comprise an extensive scope of adult inclinations that encompass, social norms, ideologies, personality traits, concrete vs. abstract systems. Meaning schemes embrace the idea of concepts, beliefs, judgments, and feelings, as an example. Meaning schemes assist in making determinations about interpretative subjects, such as the learner's perceptions regarding abortion, racial issues, civil justice, etc. During the self-examination phase of the theory, the learner thinks critically about these meanings, origins of the respective meanings, and reflects on his or her current position, in relation to meaning structure assumptions, in order to gain the influence of a new frame of references, as well as, new transformative perspective (Cranton, 2013b; Taylor & Cranton, 2012; Mezirow, 1994).

Transformative Theory Today

Transformative Theory presently is not so much about phases, as it is about the reasons an adult learner may desire or sense a need for a transformative learning experience. In 2000, Mezirow suggested that learners are motivated toward transformative learning " one of four ways:

Ø Elaborating Existing Frames of Reference
Ø Learning New Frames of Reference
Ø Transforming Points of View
Ø Transforming Habits of the Mind" (Cranton, 2013a).

In a recent study of higher education adult e-learners, conducted by Keegan (2011), it was found that utilizing the principles of Mezirow's Transformative Learning Theory, along with current technologies and a blended learning context, was an agreeable match for transformative learning events. The research evaluated three phases of transformative learning: Critical reflection (feedback), reflective discourse (evaluation), and action (learning and teaching quality). The online setting provided a supportive context for collaborative, interactive, community-based learning spaces for reflective discourse and critical reflection. Learners dialogued, journaled, and made partnerships-for-change (p. 72), that led to an aspect of accountability to one another, as meaning structures and frames of reference were modified. Emancipatory knowledge flourished among the diverse learning populace. Although, this remains a work in progress versus a one-time study format, Keegan is satisfied, at this point, that Transformative Learning can be well-supported and aptly executed within the e-learning context (ibid).

Examples of Disorienting Dilemmas

Transformative learning, according to Mezirow (2000), is induced, or triggered by a disorienting dilemma. Immediately, the reader may envision the death of a child, a catastrophic weather event, or the breakup of a long-term relationship, as examples of disorienting dilemmas. These illustrations, without a doubt, would be categorized as disorienting dilemma. However, in everyday life, adults experience disorienting dilemmas that are not, on the surface, devastating, but change one's frame of references, in terms of meaning-making of one's respective world and one's relationships with others, in the context of the e-learning environment (Merriam & Ntseane, 2008). For example, an unexpected workplace promotion, adding responsibility and stress to an otherwise comfortable professional environment, may be a trigger for a disorienting event. On the other hand, one might be facing a livelihood retirement, which signals life-changing decisions on the horizon. Alternately, one recognizes the opportunity to complete a long-desired degree in higher education. Each of these paradigms can be a trigger event for a disorienting dilemma in adult life.

Transformative Learning Scenario

Case in point, envision a fifty-five year-old, female adult-learner, named Martha (pseudonym), who has recently retired and made the decision to return to college. In Martha's younger years, sociology was her passion. It is the early 1970's, in context, she has experienced a world in flux, a country at war (Vietnam), the right to vote (at 18), and the frame of mind that her voice was a valuable living-thing within her sphere of influence. Her assumptions, perspectives, and beliefs surrounding a socially- and politically-charged world are idealistic and enthusiastic, and she poises herself to change the world. Following high school graduation, Martha enrolls in the local community college to earn an Associate's Degree, where she completes compulsory courses to meet future academic goals. Fast-forward a few years, Martha has received her degree; however, she determines to set future academic aspirations on hold to start a family. It is imperative that Martha work and share in the financial responsibilities of the household. She is presented with a prospect to become an apprentice human resource development specialist, which she gladly accepts.

All goes well, and Martha finds the socially stimulating interaction with employees and assisting them, in relation to workplace needs, a perfect role for this time in life. Now, fast-forward again thirty years. The family is raised and retirement looms in the near future. Martha recognizes that a role change is again eminent, and begins to imagine what it would be like to pursue that delayed Bachelor's Degree. The mature woman has remained somewhat skillful in the use of technology, as an executive human resource specialist; therefore, it makes sense (in her mind), to enroll at a university that offers online courses. This choice will afford Martha the chance to remain technologically savvy, pursue a Bachelor's Degree, and spend quality time with her recently retired husband.

Unexpectedly, another trigger develops for a disorienting dilemma to occur. After enrolling in an online degree program, Martha realizes that the sphere of academia has changed drastically since her previous encounter, some thirty years ago. Course descriptions and academic language is unfamiliar, course syllabi are strangely sparse of information, peer-reviewed scholarly articles have replaced textbooks as information sources, and academic professors are now learning facilitators. Consequently, her old assumptions, perspectives and beliefs (her frame of references), concerning adult education are significantly out-dated. The dream begins to feel overwhelming, followed by discontentment and discouragement. In order to survive, she will need a new frame of reference in the context of postsecondary e-learning. Nevertheless, where does she start?

Beginning the Process

Martha's discontentment and sad feelings about pursuing a postsecondary degree in a rapidly changing educational environment, has prompted Martha to contact her academic advisor. In the course of the telephone conversation, the academic advisor divulges that he, and a good many of the learning facilitators, have already completed a professional development program surrounding the effectiveness of Transformative Learning for adult e-learners. He explained to Martha that the university's focus is to assist, effectually and efficiently, all adult learners at the university, in pursuit of postsecondary degrees, through the techniques and methods of Transformative Learning. The advisor then discussed Martha's assumptions about e-learning, which brought her to this disorienting dilemma. He asked Martha to reflect critically on her preconceived assumptions regarding postsecondary e-learning, journal those thoughts and feelings, and scheduled another telephone conversation with her at the end of the week. Additionally, the advisor asked Martha to share her concerns with her present learning facilitator, acknowledging, that she, too, has been formally trained to assist her by way of Transformative Learning experiences. The advisor gives Martha directions to the Learner's Lounge" on her student portal, where she will find a group of e-learners experiencing similar situations regarding their first experiences with the e-learning environment. This lounge is a group or private chat area that allows learners to connect and converse about specific topics, such as disorienting dilemmas. Martha is on the way to a fresh start in personal and academic life via transformative learning.

Transformative Learning in Practice

"Learning is about transformation, it's about change, it's about seeing yourself in relation to the world differently" (Apte, 2009, p. 170).

Apte's (2009) examination of transformative learning for adults is stimulated by her view of contemporary adult education. She purposes that current learning designs and formats perpetuate a linear learning experience, in which adult learners add new information to currently existing frames of reference. This type of learning environment lends itself to a lack of reflective, transformative experiences within the learning process. A state of change through the development and implementation of transformative embedded opportunities and approaches is warranted for contemporary adult learners (ibid). Although, Mezirow intends the principles of TL to focus on the adult learner, Apte questions the role and challenges of the learning-facilitator to create opportunities for transformative learning to emerge, where frames of reference and meaning structures may be reframed. As an adult learning-facilitator, her study focuses on TL through the lens of a facilitator's viewpoint, in order to formulate a pragmatic TL framework of practice for learning-facilitators (ibid).

Transformative Learning (TL) seldom flows sequential, as Mezirow proposed, and usually takes on a spherical motion, where some elements are repeated. Therefore, the intention of this framework of practice was formulated to help facilitators utilize an augmented, direct route to TL practice element. "Each component represents a particular focus for the facilitators:

1. Confirming and interpreting current frames of reference
2. Working with triggers for transformative learning
3. Acknowledging a time of retreat or dormancy
4. Developing the new perspective" (Apte, 2009, p. 172).

In the context of these practice components, Apte (2009) offers a digest of reflective questions that can be used. The reflective questions are framed to enhance the reflective process, such as, "What assumptions are embedded in the ideas I am presenting and/or the materials that I am using?" (p. 173). Apte admits that in her experience, the opportunities for successful use of these practice components are contingent on the willingness of the facilitator to openly reflect and evaluate the assumptions that may be affecting his or her capacity to facilitate a transformative environment. Although, unforeseen challenges may arise over time, Apte suggests that once a facilitator is familiar with TL form a personal perspective, he or she will be better equipped to cultivate a safe, supportive, transformative learning environment with adult learners (ibid).

Technology and Transformative Learning

Regina Smith (2012) reviews TL from the perspective of the technology utilized for the adult e-learning environment. First, she proposes a purposeful use of particular technologies to foster TL, instead of using technology for the sake of technology, in an e-learning situation. Her focus is on technologies that create collaborative spaces to perpetuate dialogue, reflection on assumptions, and opportunities for discussion with other adult learners. For example, the use of a course-related wiki that can be create as a reflective space of safety and transformation, while learners, critically explore their respective suppositions, surrounding the topic at hand. This is a particularly effective arrangement for topics containing controversial or sensitive dimensions. Course-related wikis can be created before the course begins and set-up with parameters that allow only class members and their facilitator, to dialogue and interact with one another. Wikis can open avenues for critically reflective discourses, which may not be available elsewhere in the learning environment (ibid).

Second, discussion forums are collaborative spaces, which are compatible for transformative learning opportunities. The facilitator can develop provocative questions that encourage open discourse surrounding learner's feelings, suppositions, and viewpoints. Scores of discipline topics have psychological and social aspects that may be brought to light in a discussion forum. This type of discourse provokes options for reflection and evaluation of learner's current frames of reference and meaning structures. The questions; though, must be expressed in a manner that is sensitive to diverse multicultural learners of today's e-learning environments. If the facilitator is a novice in this area, it is prudent to procure the assistance of a trusted colleague or mentor for help with question-formulation. Also advisable, is a strong and apparent facilitator presence, with the aim of directing cognitive and social processes that encourage reflective thinking and interaction, as well as, support opportunities for transformative meaning-making and the creation of new frames of reference (Smith, 2012).

Conceptualizing Reflection

There has been some disparagement regarding Mezirow's original TL theory in the area of reflection, due to the complexity of reflective activities. Current pedagogical applications tend to focus on the cognitive and rational dimensions, while sacrificing the emotional and social dimensions, and visa-a-versa. Unfortunately, Mezirow's theory does not clearly address the prerequisites or challenges that may occur with reflection for transformation in his previous work. Therefore, Malkki (2010) constructed an experimental study utilizing Mezirow's reflective aspects coupled with "...Antonio Damasio’s neurobiological theory of emotions and consciousness" (p. 47). The premise for this modification is that Malkki contends that effective critical reflection cannot exist without a marriage of cognitive and emotional dimensions.

Mezirow (2000) emphasizes a critical reflective occurrence, as a prerequisite to the transformation of frames of reference and meaning structures. Damasio's theory stresses that emotional and social experiences are rarely separate, because "...emotions are associated with social reinforcement, as well as, social suppression..." (Malkki, 2010, p. 54). Therefore, Malkki determines to integrate all of the significant aspects of reflection into her experimental study. The study produced evidence that reflection, particular to learning situations is challenging to promote, due to the element of emotion.

Considerations must be made for the emotional maturity of the learners. In some cases, learner readiness is not adequate if emotional maturity is a prerequisite for a transformative occurrence. It became clear during the study that the emotional, as well as, the social aspects to promote transformative learning, are complex and requires further study, in order to; clearly identify the prerequisites and challenges of critical reflection with a larger sample of the adult learner population, over time. Malkki (2010) also suggests the need for scholars in sociology and psychology, research the reflective elements of human behavior in learning settings, to better assess the ways in which, transformative learning pedagogies could be designed and presented for effectiveness and efficiency.

Criticisms of Transformative Learning Theory

Although, Mezirow and others have persistently developed the major components of Transformative Learning Theory, it remains a theory in progress, with criticisms that have yet to be addressed. Foremost, is the shortage of congruency of the theory among, theorist, educators, and instructional designers, in the e-learning context (Alhadeff-Jones, 2012; Merriam & Kim, 2012; Taylor & Snyder, 2012; Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011). This quandary has persisted for over twenty-five years with no substantial consensus in view (Snyder, 2008). Debates surrounding TL in e-learning, include effective usability and sustainability in asynchronous, synchronous, and blended settings. While some e-learning atmospheres are situated around self-directed formats, others are highly collaborative, both of which, may, use emerging technologies for the learning process (Harasim, 2012). Other concerns are related to assessing the transformed learner's process, progress, or success (Snyder, 2008).

First, the facilitator's aptitude to create and promote transformative experiences is an impetrative consideration, when transformative processes are being elicited during the e-learning process. Facilitators need to be aptly aware and well trained in TL's advantageous conventions and principles, in order to tap into transformative benefits for adult learners (Kasworm & Bowles, 2012; Baran, Correia & Thompson, 2011; Dirkx & Smith, 2009; Donaldson, 2009; Mandell & Herman, 2009;). Second, there are concerns related to embed collaborative or reflective spaces in the course design. Course designs would necessitate modification, in order to support transformative learning, utilizing an explicitly balanced approach to TL, to present learning materials and activities that were advantageous to the readiness, perceptions, and preferences of adult learners (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009). Third, there is a lack of harmonious assessment tools and instruments designed to measure the success of learners in the TL context. Snyder (2008) reviewed ten empirical studies related to assessing transformative learning. She found that a number of educator/researchers devised their own instruments, while the remainder utilized packaged instruments, designed for adult e-learning. Snyder concluded that none of the measurement instruments was solely adequate, noting that appropriately developed measurement instruments have not yet been devised to accurately gauge the transformative value or progress of an adult e-learner (Snyder, 2008).

The complexities of new technologies and learning contexts may prohibit a proper congruency of TL approaches in e-learning contexts presently; however, the value of TL in adult e-learning should continue to be pursued in the interest, welfare, and success of future e-learners (Haythornthwaite & Andrews (2011).

Moving Forward

In every resource of investigation (above) for this article, researchers and educators alike are calling for future longitudinal studies, specifically to discover (a) what pedagogical designs and strategies are valuable to Transformative Learning events, (b) how reflective spaces may be developed and utilized, and (c) how transformative occurrences may be assessed and measured. Therefore, research has provided substantial evidence that short-term TL pedagogies and formats are having some success in the context of e-learning. Further, the research provided confirmation that educators and adult learners are willing to find new ways to create reflective spaces, dialoguing options, and e-structures to utilize Mezirow's TL principles in the e-learning arena. Moving forward, proponents will supply ongoing options and opportunities for the principles of TL to be utilized effectively and efficiently in contemporary adult education.


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